Now could be J.R. Celski's time to shine in Sochi

Hip-hop-inspired speedskater traveled painful path to get there

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comFebruary 7, 2014 

After winning two bronze medals in short track speedskating at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Federal Way’s J.R. Celski will compete in the Sochi Games.

RICK BOWMER/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ask J.R. Celski’s friends what makes him America’s top short track speedskater, and they usually reference “Ten Thousand Hours.”

The first song on Macklemore’s Grammy-winning album “The Heist” explains the secret to the rapper’s success was 10,000 hours of hard work and putting passion before comfort.

Then, as the song goes, those “10,000 hours felt like 10,000 hands, 10,000 hands they carry me.”

In Celski’s case, those hours of hard work carried him back to the Winter Olympics, already underway in Sochi, where he’s among the favorites to medal.

The former Todd Beamer High School student’s 10,000 hours were grueling.

There was a bloody accident that could have killed him.

There was an intense push to recover in time to win two bronze medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. And then there was the emotional letdown afterward that led to him leaving the sport and diving deep into Seattle’s rising hip-hop scene.

“All the years of training, overcoming that injury,” Celski said. “I was done.”

So he hung up his skates, canceled his plans to enroll at the University of California at Berkeley and started a project that would eventually resurrect his Olympic career.

 

COMING BACK FROM TRAGEDY

 

Celski came within an inch of dying Sept. 12, 2009, at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Marquette, Mich.

He had already qualified for the Vancouver Games

in the 1,500 meters, but tragedy struck during qualifying for the 500 meters.

Celski fell and slid into the padded walls. His right skate cut deeply into his left thigh, missing his femoral artery by an inch.

With blood on the ice, Celski’s parents rushed to his side. Once the favorite to win gold in Vancouver, even competing in the Olympics seemed unlikely for the then-19-year-old.

He needed 60 stitches and couldn’t skate for two months.

During the slow, often boring rehabilitation process, Celski put on headphones and listed to his favorite music, Seattle hip-hop.

The Blue Scholars. Sol. Grynch. Pre-stardom Macklemore. They all provided the soundtrack for his comeback.

He won bronze in the 1,500 and the 5,000 relay in Vancouver. In the relay, he gave fellow Federal Way skating star Apolo Anton Ohno the push that moved the team from fourth to third on the final exchange.

“It was amazing,” Celski said.

That’s precisely what Daniel Torok thought as he was working on a project at the Art Institute of Seattle.

Torok thought Celski would be the perfect subject for a short documentary.

He compiled a portfolio to show Celski, then headed to one of the skater’s post-Olympic appearances in Seattle. Uninterested in wading through a sea of teenage girls to talk to Celski, he slipped his portfolio to Celski’s dad, Bob.

It took two weeks, but Celski eventually contacted Torok via Twitter.

The skating star wasn’t interested in the project.

 

DOIN’ TOO MUCH

 

Celski raced on the World Cup circuit after the Vancouver Games, but his grueling comeback left him tired. He didn’t even want to talk about the accident anymore.

“He really needed a break,” said Vinny Dom, one of Celski’s longtime friends.

Celski quit skating and was pretty sure he was done for good.

Instead, he wanted to explore his passion for the music that motivated him. So when he contacted Torok, he proposed an entirely different project.

“He wanted to put on a concert with the music that healed him when he was down,” Torok said.

And he wanted Torok to document the making of the event that was supposed to be called MAD (Music, Art, Dance) Northwest.

Celski wanted the world to hear the music he loved, and he hoped the event would raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital. While artists such as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were willing to perform, the event never happened.

When it fell through, Torok and Celski teamed with their friends, Dorn and Terrence Santos, to shoot a documentary on Seattle hip-hop. Torok directed, and Celski produced.

They kept the name MAD Northwest for their production company and went to work.

Celski bought a camera and, Torok said, was involved in every part of the process, including filming, editing and interviews.

“The Otherside” debuted at the 2013 Seattle International Film Festival and sold out two shows. The one-hour documentary is available to stream during the Olympics at theothersidenw.com.

Celski, 23, doesn’t appear in the film that shows artists such as Sir Mix-a-Lot and Macklemore.

In one scene, Macklemore and Lewis sit in a parked car waiting to hear one of their songs on the radio. The film has been updated several times to show Macklemore’s ongoing success.

“I think people will watch because Macklemore is in there,” Torok said. “ … But I hope it will educate people on Seattle hip-hop, too.”

 

STARTING OVER

 

Macklemore’s real name is Ben Haggerty, so that’s what Celski usually calls him.

The two became friends during filming.

“I knew he was going to be big,” Celski said. “I just didn’t realize he was going to blow up like this.”

In a recently released trailer for “The Otherside,” Macklemore beckons a crowd to cheer for Celski, who is busy filming the scene.

“That was the first athlete, or anybody really famous at all, to ever acknowledge me,” Macklemore said in the trailer.

That’s no longer the case for the artist who performed at halftime of the Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game win and partied with them after the Super Bowl.

Celski said he felt a strong connection to the messages in Macklemore’s music. And Macklemore, who had struggled with drug addiction, said the men supported each other.

The motivation the skater once found in Macklemore’s music, he now got directly from the man.

“I watched Ben and Ryan, and I thought what they were doing was very comparable to what I do on the ice,” Celski said. “They worked hard to get to their goals, and I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I need to do to perfect my craft.’

“They really pushed me.”

In the summer of 2011, he told Dom and Torok he was going to start training again. They weren’t surprised.

“I always thought he’d go back,” Dom said. “He’s one of the best in the world.”

 

QUEST FOR GOLD

 

With another 10,000 hours to put in for Sochi, things didn’t get any easier for Celski.

He broke his left ankle a few months after his return, knocking him out of the 2012 World Championships.

He returned stronger than ever the next season and became the first person to break the 40-second barrier in the 500 meters. He won the World Cup race in Calgary, Alberta, in 39.937 seconds.

But over the course of the season, his times slowed, and he failed to medal at the World Championships.

Celski said this inspired him to work harder for Sochi. And the work is paying off.

In January, he dominated the U.S. Olympic Trials, qualifying in every event. The Associated Press’ recent medal predictions have Celski winning a bronze (1,500 meters) and silver (5,000 relay) in Sochi.

But in the unpredictable sport of short track, anything is possible.

“I don’t set goals for a specific time or medal,” Celski said. “I set a goal to be the best I can be. I know the potential I have, and when I get there, I will be really satisfied.”

Hard work, even 10,000 hours, isn’t always rewarded at the Olympics, but athletes don’t have a chance without it.

“There’s an expression in hip-hop,” Dom said. “‘You have to pay your dues before you earn your shine.’

“That’s true in sports, too.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com @AdventureGuys

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